The Majestic Theatre at 245 West Forty-forth Street, right off the corner of Eighth Avenue, was the sixth and last of the houses built by the Chanin Brothers. With a seating capacity of 1,800 (1,655 today), it was for decades the largest legitimate theatre in the Times Square district, suited primarily for the staging of lavish musical comedies and revues.
Architect Herbert J. Krapp used the same stadium-style design for this house as he had for the Chanins’ first theatre, the 46th Street. The orchestra was built on a steep slope, and patrons had to climb stairs to reach the rear section of the orchestra. There was only one balcony. The New York Times described the architecture and decoration of the interior as being in the Louis XV style, with a color scheme of gold and ivory. “The house curtain, the valence, the box drapes and panels on the side walls are of gold and rose silk damask,” the paper reported. “As in other Chanin houses, the seats are said to be three inches wider than the ordinary theatre chair.”
The Majestic Theatre opened on March 28, 1927, with a revue curiously called Rufus LeMaire’s Affairs, after the show’s producer, Rufus LeMaire. Despite such talents as Ted Lewis, Charlotte Greenwood, and Peggy Fears, the show was a dud and played only 56 times. This was succeeded by a black revue, Rang Tang, that moved here from the Royale Theatre and stayed for two months. A Sigmund Romberg musical play called The Love Call was next but didn’t tarry more than 88 performances. An extremely elaborate 1928 Gilbert Miller production, The Patriot, had John Gielgud in the cast and, considering the reviews, should have run longer than 12 performances. George Kelly’s play Behold the Bridegroom, which critic Burns Mantle named one of the year’s ten best, moved to the Majestic from the Cort Theatre in February 1928. It starred Judith Anderson, Jean Dixon, Mary Servoss, Thurston Hall, and Lester Vail, but it ran only 88 performances.
Ziegfeld’s enormous hit Rio Rita (1928) moved to the Majestic after playing some months at the splendid new Ziegfeld Theatre. Champion boxer Jack Dempsey made his Broadway debut at the Majestic September 18, 1928, in a drama called, aptly, The Big Fight, in which he had to knock out another boxer to win the hand of a manicurist named Shirley. The critics rated his boxing better than his acting and the novelty wore off after 31 rounds.
The Majestic’s biggest hit thus far was a revue called Pleasure Bound, with Phil Baker, Jack Pearl, Grace Brinkley, and others. The young Busby Berkeley created the dances, and the show made it to 136 performances. The Shuberts produced a new version of Die Fledermaus called A Wonderful Night, and the star was a young stilt walker from England called Archie Leach, who became better known in Hollywood as Cary Grant. This Johann Strauss bauble played 125 performances.
In February 1930 The International Revue opened here and should have been a triumph. It cost $200,000 to mount (an exorbitant amount for the Depression), and it had such luminaries in the cast as Gertrude Lawrence, Harry Richman, Jack Pearl, ballet star Anton Dolin, the great Spanish dancer Argentinita, Moss and Fontana, and the Chester Hale Girls. It also had two song hits by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh that have become standards: “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and “Exactly Like You.” But the revue was earthbound. On the opening night, it was so long that the second act did not begin until 11:00 p.m., and the highly touted Argentinita laid an egg.
The Shuberts’ next venture, an operetta called Nina Rosa, by Sigmund Romberg, Otto Harbach, and Irving Caesar, ran 137 times. It starred Ethelind Terry (the famed star of Rio Rita) and Guy Robertson, and it had a novel setting — the Peruvian Andes. A revival of Romberg’s The Student Prince in 1931 fared less well, running for 45 performances. The Depression was felt by this theatre in 1932, when it was dark for many months.
In January 1933 much was expected of Pardon My English, a musical with a score by George and Ira Gershwin and book by Herbert Fields. The producers were Alex Aarons and Vinton Freedley, who had mounted a series of highly successful Gershwin shows. The stars were Jack Pearl, Lyda Roberti (“the Polish bombshell”), Josephine Huston, and the dance team of Carl Randall and Barbara Newberry. The net result was one of the Gershwins’ biggest flops. It ran for only 43 performances. According to Gerald Bordman in his book American Musical Theatre, the fact that this musical was set in Germany disturbed many theatregoers, since Hitler was coming to power there.
The successful team of Ray Henderson and Lew Brown decided to give the Depression a kick in the slats by writing and producing an opulent revue, Strike Me Pink, at the Majestic in March 1933. The show, backed by gangster Waxey Gordon, smacked of the Roaring Twenties. Opening-night top was $25 (outrageous for those dark days), and the tickets were printed on gold stock. The stars included the ebullient Jimmy Durante, the vivacious Lupe Velez (then married to Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller), and that cool socialite Hope Williams. The result was neither a flop nor a smash, but a pleasant run of 122 performances.
An ingenious musical, Murder at the Vanities, moved to the Majestic from the New Amsterdam in November 1933 and stayed for four months. It focused on backstage murders during a performance of Earl Carroll’s Vanities and thus combined thrills with lush scenes from a typical Carroll revue. Bela Lugosi was in the cast, but he wasn’t the one who “dunnit.” Since producers are constantly promising to revive this novelty, we shall not divulge the killer’s identity.
An impresario named S. M. Chartock took over the Majestic in the spring of 1934 and staged a festival of five Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. During 1935 a series of quick failures played at this theatre. The only show to stay longer than a few weeks was the Earl Carroll Sketch Book, described as a “Hysterical Historical Revue,” or American history as seen through the eyes of a chorus girl. This amusing show, starring Ken Murray and the usual near-nude Carroll girls, moved here from the Winter Garden and stayed for almost three months.
Beginning in 1936 the Majestic booked more and more successful musicals that had opened in other theatres and would end their Broadway runs here, usually at reduced prices. In 1937 there was an unsuccessful attempt to revive two old thrillers, The Bat and The Cat and the Canary. A new operetta, Three Waltzes, employing the music of Johann Strauss Sr. and Jr., was a moderate success that year. It starred Kitty Carlisle, Glenn Anders, and Michael Bartlett and ran for 122 performances.
At the end of 1938 Gertrude Lawrence moved into this theatre from the Plymouth with her hit Susan and God, and this was followed in February 1939 by the lively musical Stars in Your Eyes, with such personalities as Ethel Merman, Jimmy Durante, Richard Carlson, Mildred Natwick, and the Russian ballerina Tamara Toumanova. With a bright score by Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields, a witty book about a lusty Hollywood star (Merman) trying to seduce her innocent leading man (Carlson), and direction by Joshua Logan, the show had a glittering opening night, which Life magazine photographed. But despite a rave review in The New York Times, it ran for only 127 performances. Producer Dwight Deere Wiman blamed the comparatively short run on the fact that the highly publicized World’s Fair opened in Flushing Meadows that spring and presumably siphoned away audiences. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Stars in Your Eyes was its chorus line, which numbered such future ballet and Broadway luminaries as Alicia Alonso, Jerome Robbins, Nora Kaye, and Maria Karnilova.
The next musical at the Majestic, Yokel Boy, was not as good as Stars in Your Eyes but ran longer. It also dealt with Hollywood studios — and not very kindly. Buddy Ebsen, Judy Canova, Lois January, and Phil Silvers led the cast, and one hit tune emerged: “Comes Love.”
Clare Boothe’s hit anti-Nazi play Margin for Error moved here from the Plymouth in 1940; and Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin’ transferred from the Winter Garden in 1941. In January 1942 producer Cheryl Crawford presented the first Broadway revival of the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, and this production proved to be an artistic and a commercial success. Crawford removed the operatic recitatives and made the work more of a Broadway musical than an opera, and the public flocked to it for 35 weeks. Many members of the original cast (Todd Duncan, Anne Brown, Warren Coleman, Ruby Elzy, and J. Rosamond Johnson) were in this revival, and they brought luster to a work that had failed in its premiere engagement in 1935.
Paul Green and Richard Wright’s powerful drama Native Son, directed by Orson Welles, played a return engagement at the Majestic in 1942, followed by the frothy hit comedy Junior Miss, which moved here from the Lyceum Theatre in 1943.
One of the Majestic’s biggest hits to this time opened on August 4, 1943: a new version of that favorite Franz Lehár/Victor Leon/Leo Stein operetta The Merry Widow. The cast included Marta Eggerth and her husband, Jan Kiepura, along with David Wayne, Gene Barry, Melville Cooper, and Ruth Matteson. It waltzed for 321 performances.
Cole Porter’s Mexican Hayride, with Bobby Clark and June Havoc, moved here from the Winter Garden in 1945. But it soon made way for one of the treasures of the American musical theatre: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s lilting Carousel. A musical adaptation of Molnar’s play Liliom, the work opened to rapturous reviews in April 1945. Critic John Chapman in the Daily News stated that it was one of the finest musical plays he had ever seen, and Richard Rodgers later confessed that of all the musicals he had written, this was his favorite. John Raitt was memorable singing his “Soliloquy,” and he and Jan Clayton shared the lovely ballad “If I Loved You.” The musical ran 890 performances, and the Majestic established itself (with the St. James across the street) as one of the preferred theatres for Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals.
The hit soldier revue Call Me Mister moved to this theatre in 1947 from the National, followed by another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Allegro, a rather pretentious chronicle of a man named Joseph Taylor Jr., which critic Woollcott Gibbs described in The New Yorker as “a shocking disappointment.” It ran for 315 performances.
On April 7, 1949, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific opened here, starring Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, and immediately became the hottest ticket in town. Based on James A. Michener’s Pulitzer-winning book Tales of the South Pacific, this parable of conflicting love and racial prejudice between American military and Polynesian locals during World War II also won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1950, plus the Tony Award, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and the Donaldson Award for best musical of the season. With direction by Joshua Logan (who coauthored the book with Oscar Hammerstein II) and with some of Richard Rodgers’s most inspired melodies, the musical ran for 1,925 performances and won Tony Awards for Martin; Pinza; supporting performers Juanita Hall and Myron McCormick; director Logan; and Rodgers, Hammerstein, and Logan for their music, lyrics, and book.
The remainder of the 1950s at this theatre saw the production of some musicals of varying merit that enjoyed respectable runs. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s backstage musical Me and Juliet was second-rate R&H but ran for 358 performances in 1953-54; By the Beautiful Sea, a musical by Arthur Schwartz and Herbert and Dorothy Fields, starring Shirley Booth, ran a moderate 268 performances in 1954.
Fanny (1954), a musical adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s trilogy (Marius, César, and Fanny) by S. N. Behrman, Joshua Logan, and Harold Rome, ran for 888 performances. It starred Walter Slezak (who won a Tony Award for his performance) and Ezio Pinza.
The Majestic next hosted another musical theatre landmark, Meredith Willson’s phenomenal The Music Man (1957), which won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Actor (Robert Preston), Best Supporting Players (Barbara Cook and David Burns), Best Book (Willson and Franklin Lacey), Best Composer and Lyricist (Willson), Best Musical Director (Herbert Greene), and Best Producers (Kermit Bloomgarden, Herbert Greene, and Frank Productions). This bonanza about a charismatic con man who tries to sell a small Iowa town on the fraudulent idea of a boys’ band — but winds up falling in love with the place — ran for 1,375 performances.
Much was expected of Camelot, the Majestic’s next musical, in late 1960. Written by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, directed by Moss Hart, whose previous show had been the sensational My Fair Lady, it costarred Julie Andrews of that show, plus movie star Richard Burton and newcomer Robert Goulet. The critics gave it very mixed reviews, and after a few weeks it appeared that the expensive musical was not long for Broadway. Then a miracle happened. Ed Sullivan presented four musical numbers from the show on his popular TV variety show, and the following morning there was a long line of ticket buyers at the Majestic Theatre. Burton won a Tony Award for his performance as King Arthur, and the musical played for 873 performances.
The remainder of the early 1960s was devoted to a revival of The School for Scandal (1963), starring Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud (who also directed it), plus a remarkable series of flops with notable names attached: Judy Holliday in her last Broadway show, the lamentable musical Hot Spot (1963); Tovarich (1963), the musical version of the play of the same name, which moved here from the Broadway Theatre with Tony Award-winner Vivien Leigh and Jean Pierre Aumont; and Mary Martin in the flop musical Jennie (1963), supposedly based on the early career of actress Laurette Taylor.
The misguided musical Anyone Can Whistle (1964) had a beguiling score by Stephen Sondheim, a murky book by Arthur Laurents, and good performances by Angela Lansbury, Lee Remick, and Harry Guardino. It lasted only nine performances but developed something of a cult following. Sammy Davis Jr. starred in Strouse and Adams’s unsuccessful musical version of Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy (1964), followed by a transfer of the hit Funny Girl (1966) from the Winter Garden; and then the long-running classic Fiddler on the Roof, which moved here from the Imperial in 1967 and stayed until December 1970.
The 1970s saw a flop musical version of The Teahouse of the August Moon called Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen (1970); the Tony Award-winning musical 1776 (1971), here from the St. James Theatre; and a fairly successful musical version of the popular movie Some Like It Hot, retitled Sugar (1972), with Robert Morse and Tony Roberts as the musicians who must masquerade as women to hide from gangsters, and Cyril Ritchard as the old tycoon who falls for one of them. A Little Night Music (1973), the Tony Award-winning musical, moved here from the Shubert Theatre.
Mack and Mabel (1974), the eagerly anticipated Jerry Herman/Michael Stewart musical about silent film icons Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand, ran only 65 performances despite the presence of Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters in the lead roles. The Wiz, an all-black take on The Wizard of Oz, won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Score (Charlie Smalls), Best Director (Geoffrey Holder), Best Supporting Performers (Ted Ross, Dee Dee Bridgewater), Best Costume Designer (Geoffrey Holder), and Best Choreographer (George Faison) and ran for 1,672 performances.
In the late 1970s Liza Minnelli and Barry Nelson starred in a pallid musical, The Act (1977), for which Minnelli won a Tony Award. Henry Fonda and Jane Alexander played Supreme Court Justices in First Monday in October (1978). Michael Bennett directed and choreographed Ballroom (1978). And Richard Rodgers presented his last show, I Remember Mama, a 1979 musical version of a John Van Druten play that Rodgers and Hammerstein had produced in 1944. Liv Ullmann starred.
The next few years saw a series of short runs: a revival of The Most Happy Fella (1979); a personal appearance by Bette Midler (1979-80); the final performances of Grease (1980), from the Royale Theatre; Blackstone! (1980), a magic show; and a revival of the 1947 musical Brigadoon with Agnes de Mille recreating her dances that won a Tony Award in 1947.
In 1981 David Merrick’s sumptuous production of the musical 42nd Street (based on the classic movie musical of the same name) moved here from the Winter Garden, where it had won Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Choreography.
The lavish production stayed at this theatre until 1988, then moved across the street to the St. James to make way for the biggest hit in the distinguished history of the Majestic, The Phantom of the Opera, the pinnacle of the pop opera movement of the 1980s. The Broadway production imported three of its London stars, Michael Crawford, Sarah Brightman, and Steve Barton. This phenomenal success by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Charles Hart, and Richard Stilgoe won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Direction (Harold Prince), Best Actor in a Musical (Crawford), Best Featured Actress (Judy Kaye), Best Scenic and Costume Designer (Maria Bjornson), and Best Lighting Designer (Andrew Bridges).
The great popularity of this spectacular musical was due in part to its grand score flavored by rock, opera, and Broadway, and partly owing to director Prince’s dictum that each scene have some sort of spectacular surprise or special effect. Most memorable was a huge chandelier that came crashing to the stage at the climax of Act I.
Phantom ran and ran, climbing its way up the lists of Broadway long runs until finally, on January 22, 2006, it passed Lloyd Webber’s Cats to become the longest-running show in Broadway history. It logged its 9,000th performance in September 2009. The production also claims to be the highest-grossing show in history, earning more than $5 billion worldwide as of 2010.
A share of that money was used to update the theatre’s sound system and lighting system, and Phantom’s orchestrations around the time of the show’s twentieth anniversary in 2008. The Phantom of the Opera was still turning a weekly profit as it began its third decade at the Majestic.
The Majestic Theatre is owned by the Shubert Organization and is one of the world’s finest musical-comedy houses.